Friday, January 6, 2012

In Defense of (Reference) Books

--By Stella Atrium
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I require a handbook for students who are learning to write research papers.  The handbook is in new edition (and the publishers want to make the investment back) so the price is ~$75. Students say to me, "Can't I just find that information online?"

Well, yes and no. Dictionary

I remember my frustration as a kid when my mother tried to introduce me to the dictionary.  I was instructed to look in the area of how I thought the word was spelled. By running my finger down the page where several words were spelled similarly, I could find the one I needed.  The hard lesson opened a whole new world for me.  Look at all these words!

An online dictionary doesn't show all the words, only the one you know how to request.  Peripheral exploration is excluded.

There are quality websites for guiding academic writing (OWL from Purdue University, for example), and sites for building grammar (visit Grammar Girl).  Navigating to each of these sites requires that the student has formed a question and knows how to ask the question to get an appropriate answer. 

The operator words in today's world are find, submit, link, retweet, ask, learn-more, post. Without a focused question, the student doesn't reach the answer and, in the case of building grammar skills, easily gives up the search.
net words

But our whole lives are online, right?  In my neighborhood a four-story building that occupies a half-block stands empty where a Borders once operated.  Across the street a tiny California-style Apple store sells iPads and Kindles at long tables where nobody gets to sit down, not even the workers.  I guess old people are not their primary customers. Students live in the Apple world and don't miss the community where discourse is more than information.

Geek SquadHere's another example.  I took the new Kindle into the university Geek Squad to load wireless access and the email account.  The resident geek looked about twelve (truly wet behind the ears). Because the kindle is new to this service, he didn't know the protocols for completing the operation and started searching the wiki account that serves as a user's manual. 

Except he didn't know the problem, so he couldn't ask the right question to find the answer.

Therein lies the rub. A reference book compiles all the answers on a topic so searching leads to more than the "bit" that allows the user to go to the next screen.

I encourage students to invest in the handbook, keep it next to the computer, open it occasionally, and learn a whole new world of sentence structure, grammar, word usage, research formats, and online presentations.  These issue are compiled into a single source and students can move easily from one section to the next to devour the discipline and check back for a needed refresher not tied to solving an immediate problem. 

My pitch is that the handbook can be used throughout the college experience and becomes a helpmate for improving how the student presents herself using words.  This is a new concept to them. "Do you mean... look in a book more than once?"

It's not about operator words.  It's about worldview.

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